Sunday, February 20, 2011

Ben Tarnoff

Ben Tarnoff is the author of Moneymakers: The Wicked Lives and Surprising Adventures of Three Notorious Counterfeiters. He has worked at Lapham's Quarterly and graduated from Harvard in 2007.

Late last month I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
While writing Moneymakers, I was reading history all day. Which meant the last thing I wanted to do when I got home was to read more history. Instead, I began reading fiction. Historical fiction, mostly: books like Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall and Caleb Carr's The Alienist. Also science fiction, which is kind of like historical fiction in reverse, like Samuel Delany's Dhalgren. The more I read, the more I realized how much novelists and historians have in common. Both try to create a credible world for their characters to inhabit. Both use memory in interesting ways: the historian tries to retrieve memories of the historical past, while the novelist draws on memories from his or her personal past. Around this time I read David Shields' Reality Hunger. Shields helped sharpen my thinking on the overlap between history and fiction. He points out that anything remembered, even a few seconds after it's taken place, is already at some distance from the truth. All memory is fiction, of a sort; the moment we've reprocessed an event into a story with a beginning and an end, it loses its basis as absolute reality. This doesn't mean that historians don't have an obligation to the truth. My book has a lot of endnotes, and I tried to be as scrupulous as possible in my sourcing. But I've become skeptical about looking at history as a science. It's not enough for historians to be truthful. Their stories need to feel true, in the same way that a novel makes imagined facts feel true. The world of the story can be weird, can take place a hundred years ago or three centuries in the future--but whatever that world looks like, it needs to feel as though it shares a boundary with ours. My favorite novel is probably E.M. Forster's Howards End. Its epigraph, "Only connect," still feels like the best possible motto for writers of history, fiction, or anything else.
Read an excerpt from Moneymakers, and learn more about the book and author at Ben Tarnoff's website.

The Page 99 Test: Moneymakers.

--Marshal Zeringue